Nick Clegg's plans to create an elected House of Lords suffered a big setback last night when Labour vowed to oppose the shake-up and peers from all parties lined up to attack it.
Labour was accused of playing politics as it rejected Liberal Democrat pleas to set aside the differences between the two parties to force through Mr Clegg's proposal for the first elected peers to be chosen in 2015.
The Coalition Government wants the 828-member House replaced by 240 elected members, 60 appointed crossbenchers, 12 bishops and a small number of appointed ministers. But Labour favours a 100 per cent elected second chamber.
The Deputy Prime Minister has led the charge for Lords reform. Although David Cameron has backed the change, there are doubts that the Conservatives will devote the energy and Parliamentary time needed to force through Mr Clegg's Bill before the next general election against strong opposition in both Houses of Parliament.
In a heated Lords debate, Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, Labour's leader in the Lords, said: "We are united in seeing this Bill as a bad Bill – not a unity of papering over the cracks, as the Coalition parties will no doubt seek to do... This House, this Parliament, our politics and our constitution merit more than this Bill. Reform should mean proper reform."
Baroness Boothroyd, the former Commons Speaker, was cheered by peers from all parties after launching a stinging attack on the Government's proposals. She said: "Never in my experience has an institution at the heart of the British constitution been marked down for destruction on such spurious grounds. If this draft Bill becomes law in any shape or form it will wreck this place as a deliberative assembly and tear up the roots that make it the most effective revising chamber in the world. Worse still, the balance between our two Houses, on which our democracy and rule of law depends, will be lost for ever."
Warning ministers not to use the Parliament Act to override opposition to the Bill in the Lords, she said: "We in this House must be resolute in our determination and ready to resist come what may. The Government already hints at using its powers of duress to get its way, but I warn it."
Labour is the largest party in the second chamber with 243 peers. The Conservatives have 217 and the Liberal Democrats 92.
Baroness D'Souza, convenor of the 183 independent crossbench peers, said the Bill would not improve the House's performance: "I do not believe that elections are the only form of democracy. I do not think you can argue that this House is undemocratic when it so clearly acts in the public interest." She said there were many reforms that could be carried out to improve the working of the House, such as allowing members to retire, but told the Government: "Elections are the one thing the House really does not need."
Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative Leader of the Lords, insisted that the Government's proposals would not change the second chamber's role as a "revising and scrutinising" chamber.
Reminding peers that reform had been a manifesto pledge of all three major parties, Lord Strathclyde said the Government wanted consensus and was prepared to "adapt and navigate our way through". He added: "It is time for this great story of House of Lords reform to take its next step forward."